Women marking menstruation, menopause with new rituals

Headaches, backaches, fatigue: Sunday, Nov. 5, in San Francisco a group of women symbolically dispelled these ubiquitous menstrual woes by "casting" them into a bowl of saltwater.

In another room, a group of women in or near their midlife years shouted the names of their demons — impatience, envy, insecurity, fear of growing old — while their fellow group members supported them by chanting, "Away, away."

In both of these 1995 Bay Area Jewish Women's Conference sessions, women shared ideas for creating new rituals to mark significant life events and passages.

More and more Jewish women are creating such rites, said clinical social worker Arlene Dumas, who co-led the midlife workshop. While researching Jewish women's rituals to prepare for the workshop, Dumas was particularly touched when she read about a farewell ceremony for a woman moving away from her community, and about various rituals honoring women turning 40 and 60.

"These rituals are community-building, empowering," Dumas said.

In the workshop titled "Blood Petals: Honoring Our Bleeding Cycles as Jewish Women," leader Alina Evers told participants that some women like to wear red during their periods as a way of acknowledging that they are bleeding.

She also said she knows a woman who, during her period, paints her lips with her own menstrual blood.

In opening the workshop, she encouraged participants to share their thoughts on the monthly cycle. Some of them might never before have discussed this topic so openly.

While Evers offered specific ideas for honoring bleeding cycles, her workshop also investigated traditional Jewish views of menstruation.

"It's clear that in both Jewish and secular culture, there's a lot of taboo and negativity attached to [menses]," Evers said.

A San Franciscan who calls herself a "ritualist," Evers asked the dozen or so participants to think of something they love about their periods.

One woman said bleeding makes her feel more connected to her body, "like I've come home in a way." Another said she liked the way her period connected her to her friends, creating a sense of "Oh, you're bleeding, too."

Said another: "I love knowing that I'll be able to have a child."

But at least one woman acknowledged that there was nothing about her period she loves. "The only thing I love is when it's over," she said. "All my life I've dreaded it."

It's that ambivalence, among other issues, that led Evers to create the "Blood Petals" workshop, one of about 80 that were part of the Sunday conference. She said she knows a number of women who wish they could appreciate menstruating and all it represents, but who have trouble doing so because of the pain and inconvenience involved.

Evers herself has at times experienced cramps that left her writhing in pain. "I know this is an [area] where I have to do some healing," she said.

To start that process for herself and the other women in the room, Evers led the workshop participants through a guided visualization.

As the women sat in a circle around an arrangement of objects including a lit red candle, several wooden dolls, smooth stones and a bowl of saltwater, Evers asked them to place their hands on their wombs, which she called the "center of your power, seat of your womanness, place of beginnings and endings."

With their eyes closed, the women listened to Evers' gentle voice as she urged them to envision their connection to the earth.

Many appeared genuinely relaxed as Evers proceeded through the visualization, which culminated with the suggestion that the women see themselves as flowering fruit trees with branches bursting from the tops of their heads. As if offering a metaphor for the entire conference, Evers asked the women to imagine their branches intertwining with those of their fellow participants around the room.

Meanwhile, midlife women celebrated their common bond at a workshop titled "WomenPause: Creating Ritual and Celebration for Mid-Life."

WomenPause, explained co-leader Bett Lujan Martinez, is a play on the word menopause, a life transition she calls "a soul event as well as a body event."

"This is a time in life when we move from procreation to `co-creation,'" Martinez said, stressing that menopause is often a time when women's primary concerns extend past self and family and into the world.

Menopause, she said, "is a time to broaden our caring."